Following a healthy diet plan is essential for enabling the heart to perform at optimal levels. Just like an automobile, the body runs on the fuel we eat and drink. That’s why it’s critical that heart-healthy foods become a constant dietary fixture. If you consume food that’s detrimental to your heart’s ability to function, high-blood pressure, high-cholesterol levels, susceptibility to heart attacks, and other heart-related ailments are more likely to occur.

While it’s always a smart choice to consult a doctor regarding an eating plan that best fits individual needs, following this heart-healthy diet plan will increase your chances of avoiding chronic diseases that affect millions of Americans each year.

Heart-Healthy Foods

When it comes to a heart-healthy diet, the general rule of thumb is to stay away from processed foods as much as possible and to consume natural substances that come directly from the earth. Make the following foods the staples in your diet to keep your heart healthy, strong, and free of disease.

Fruits and Vegetables. Loaded with fiber and healthy nutrients, fruits and vegetables should be a central part of your diet. Local farmer’s markets typically sell the freshest organic produce, although purchasing the frozen variety from grocery stores is a good alternative. When buying canned vegetables, look for “low sodium” on the labels. Heart-healthy vegetables include:

  • spinach
  • carrots
  • broccoli
  • cantaloupe
  • apples

Proteins. Heart-healthy proteins can be found in lean meats and poultry. Fish, such as mackerel, tuna, and salmon are rich in omega-3 fatty acids that have been shown to reduce the risks of chronic heart disease. Additional protein-packed foods include:

  • egg whites
  • skim milk
  • legumes, such as lentils and beans
  • soy burgers or patties—a healthy alternative to red meats

Grains. Whole grains are rich in fiber and nutrients that are helpful for lowering blood pressure. Flaxseeds, which also contain omega-3 fatty acids, work to lower cholesterol levels. Whole-wheat flour, 100 percent whole-grain breads, cereal dense in fiber, steel-cut oatmeal, and brown rice can also contribute to a healthy heart.

Wine. Red wine could potentially improve good HDL cholesterol levels. Doctors recommend no more than one glass per day, however.

Foods to Avoid

For a healthy heart, it’s critical to stay away from foods rich in saturated fats, salt, and sugar. Furthermore, consumption of fat should preferably be under 30 percent of the total calories consumed daily.

Some of the foods to avoid include:

Saturated Fats. Foods rich in saturated fats, such as butter, shortening, gravy, and bacon are proven to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Red Meat. Moderation is the key when it comes to eating red meat. Red meats such as pork, lamb, and beef should be consumed no more than a few times per month. These foods are rich in saturated fats, which can cause cholesterol levels to skyrocket.

Sodium. Studies show that sodium may contribute to high blood pressure. This holds especially true for people over the age of 50. Canned soups, which typically appear healthy, are often incredibly high in sodium; look for “reduced sodium” on the labels. Additional foods rich in sodium include:

  • soy sauce
  • tomato juice
  • potato chips
  • salty, packaged snacks

Sugars. Sugar can greatly increase the risk of coronary heart disease. Sugar is also linked to high triglyceride levels and high blood pressure. Stay away from foods with high fructose corn syrup or even high levels of natural sugars, including:

  • cereals
  • candy
  • ice cream
  • soda
  • certain types of bread 

Check labels to ensure your daily intake of sugar doesn’t exceed around 90 grams per day.

If you have special dietary needs because of a medical condition, be sure to consult with your doctor or a certified nutritionist. You may need to develop a specialized heart-healthy diet plan to suit your needs.